The competition

The relationship between split-time contractors had never been easy.

When ITV first began in 1955, Associated-Rediffusion and ATV London had good relations. Partially this was of necessity: the two shared A-R’s London facilities, and when bankruptcy beckoned in early 1956, AR had effectively bankrolled ATV to keep it on air. The last thing A-R needed was to expand its loss-making 5 day operation into a loss-making 7 day operation, after all.

Once ATV opened in Birmingham, AR was looking forward to another company pulling its weight and taking some of the burden of the weekday production requirements.

Alas, ATV chose to save its best output for London weekends; anything of value that could be recorded in Birmingham to show in London found its way on to ATV London.

ABC and ATV fought like cat and dog from the start – on launch day, ABC was to be found in the High Court arguing that the new London weekend contractor was passing off the initials ‘ABC’ by calling itself Associated Broadcasting Company. ATV had changed its name and on-air identity by its third week.

ABC and ATV went into partnership on studios in Birmingham out of necessity in the early, loss-making days. Howard Thomas describes in his autobiography how this was a necessary short-term solution that caused him unending problems as ATV in turn denied him access to London and challenged the costings of the few programmes they did allow through.

ABC and Granada had a better relationship, if only because the two of them resolutely ignored each other as much as they could. Granada was eventually told by the ITA that their closedowns on a Friday night, which implied that there was no television at all until Monday, would have to not only mention that ITV continued when Granada was off, but also name-check the weekend service.

Nevertheless, Granada in all its publicity continued to suggest that the north of England was served by Granada and Granada alone.

These petty differences were swept away when the new pattern of broadcasting was announced in 1967. From now on, the previously regional model of 7-day companies would apply everywhere.

Except London.

The London weekday company was already the dominant company in ITV – although this was partially because ATV was distracted by its split region and Granada had an almost-illegally close relationship with AR and continued to be pals with Rediffusion London.

However, the fact remained that a 7-day London company would very quickly overwhelm the entire network. It would be richer, have better access to stars and would start to draw money and talent from out of the regions – an anathema to the ITA in pre-devolution days, but not something that worries regulators now.

So the split was retained. But the ITA wanted the new “Big 5” to have roughly equal shares of the revenue of ITV (roughly because YTV was a minnow compared to the other 4, whilst ATV had rich diversifications like ITC that somewhat muddied the waters) and also planned to end the practice of one company having two contract areas (ABC and ATV).

The split therefore needed to move to create a more useful equity between weekdays and weekends in London. The most useful split would have been a straight Monday-Thursday/Friday-Sunday division.

However, the ITV system had commitments during the day on Fridays. Schools programming couldn’t just stop or change style or control on a Friday – although control of output could go elsewhere (it went to ATV in Birmingham).

Sports programming like racing and cricket was a staple of daytime ITV, being exempt from the broadcasting hours restrictions that kept television to a largely evenings-only experience until the early 1970s.

But a major London event, like test cricket or Wimbledon couldn’t efficiently be split between two providers without a lot of waste, duplication and confusion.

Worse, most major news stories in those days occurred on weekdays during the day – politicians and terrorists alike hadn’t learnt to time events to catch the BBC news at 8.55 or the ITN News at Ten.

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With the ITA planning a specifically different service on weekdays to that seen on weekends, it didn’t want the weekend provider suddenly having to cover a major story of the style of Churchill’s funeral. Likewise, it didn’t want the entire responsibility to fall on to the shoulders of ITN, who would have had to run to the ITA to ask them to make ITV pay for the increased responsibility.

Therefore the split would need to be after these things were unlikely to happen, but before the meat of the evening was underway – sometime on Friday evening.

The time of the split appears not to have been fixed by the time of the contract interviews. Certainly the new London Television Consortium (later London Weekend and later still LWT) was already lobbying for all of Friday for its weekend service well before it went on air.

Thames also wanted as much of peak time as could be garnered.

The time to split was set at 7pm by the ITA, though they agreed to keep this under consideration as both contractors wanted to push it an hour or more either way.

Therefore Thames and LWT were thrust into closer contact than any two companies had ever been before. The split between the two was noticeable not only for its picture roll at 7pm but also for the failure of either announcer to acknowledge the other’s existence – although Thames would provide the epilogue on LWT at first, and in the 1980s would even provide LWT with a service called “Thames Weekend News”.

Needless to say, the two companies started to bicker almost immediately.

LWT’s management was largely ex-BBC. They had no idea how ITV worked, but knew that it didn’t and were happy to tell their opposite numbers of that fact to their faces. Thames management was ABC, and they took pleasure in telling the LWT shower that they would crash and burn.

After the launch-week strikes and subsequent shut down, Thames’s ex-ABC sales force went out on the rampage to rebuild the lost business.

LWT’s ex-Rediffusion sales force arranged to have lunch with a contact here and a friend there.

Thames organised discounts, special offers and freebies.

LWT took people to dinner and gave them free tickets to studio audience shows.

Thames sales staff knocked on doors, rang around, called in favours, got friends and families to recruit small advertisers.

LWT sales staff sat and waited for the phone to ring like gentlemen should do.

Thames, worried over the potential financial ruin from the botched launch period, poured money it didn’t have into popular programmes and local interest features.

LWT produced the highbrow arts features, reviews and David Frost talk shows they had promised the ITA. And put them out in peak time. And wondered why the other regions didn’t take them.

Thames aggressively sold its programmes to the network and abroad.

LWT offered its programmes to the network and expressed wry amusement when there were no takers. How foolish these old-fashioned ITV people were! The programmes wouldn’t sell abroad, either – after all, they wouldn’t sell in the UK.

The end result of this was obvious to everyone except those at LWT.

LWT crashed and burned.

The ex-BBC executives were amazed when it was pointed out to them that their programmes had to attract viewers to attract advertisers to attract money. If that circle never started, the company would simply go bust.

The executives had all been crying out for serious arts and documentary programmes on a weekend that neither BBC-1 nor ATV London were supplying. They thought that providing expensive arts programmes to the masses in place of Sunday Night at the London Palladium would be providing the masses with just what they needed.

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It’s likely true that the masses needed that. But foisting it upon them wouldn’t work on the BBC (which is why they left) so it was even less likely to work on ITV on the weekends. If nothing else, the masses still had popular programming on BBC-1 at weekends – that didn’t end when the executives left (quite the reverse – Sir Hugh Carleton Greene’s reforms of the BBC were bearing fruit even as he was leaving; the BBC had never been so popular since the monopoly ended).

The ITA, powerless to stop LWT making a fool of itself but required by law to be ready to pick up the pieces, drew up two plans of action.

  1. In the first instance, the day LWT went bankrupt, Thames would go 7 days. Howard Thomas reports that he was asked to draw up an emergency schedule for Thames weekends, undoubtedly to last the period until a new contract could be let – generally regarded to be about a year.
  2. Second, that contract would be offered first and foremost to Rediffusion Television. They would be invited to takeover the remains of LWT (the studios, staff and programming at a peppercorn certainly; the actual bankrupt company itself if they were wiling to yet again throw money at ITV, despite their treatment last time).

When the second event came to pass, Rediffusion would give up its share of Thames at market rate. EMI would be a willing buyer; if not, there were others.

Rediffusion would be compensated by having the ITA’s favour, so far as that went. Most probably that meant rebates on rental and a favourable eye cast upon any programme plans.

Rediffusion Television, under John Spencer Wills, wasn’t fooled by this; nevertheless it was a tempting offer and one that BET was unlikely to refuse.

But BET was already noticing that its 49% of Thames was earning almost as much money as 100% of Rediffusion London. Given time to settle in and an end to the recession that had inevitably followed in on the heals of the new Tory government in 1970, 49% of Thames was likely to be worth far more than 100% of Rediffusion Weekend Television.

Rediffusion-BET were therefore cautious in their replies to the ITA’s back-channel private soundings.

In the end it didn’t matter – LWT recovered after a series of painful boardroom coups, relaunches and attempts to grasp the nature of Independent Television.

But a suspicion between LWT and Thames was now set in cement. Many LWT staff had been displaced from good jobs at Rediffusion by the coming of Thames. The sales force of Thames had helped doom the early ideals of LWT. The new management at LWT knew that Thames was always waiting to catch their contract should they fall.

There would be co-operation and contact between the two companies over the years, but never trust.

When contract renewals came up in 1973/4, 1980/2 and 1991/3, the two would back the bids of others either loudly or behind the scenes.

Eventually one of them would win by default. But that’s another story.

Categories: History

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